Thursday, December 26, 2013

Family Hike #2: Mount Monadnock, NH

Hike #15: Mount Monadnock with kids
Elevation: 3,166
Date: October 26, 2013
Location: Jaffrey, NH
Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: 5:26 (1:18/mile)

My daughters, 8- and 10-year-olds, are not fans of hiking. Skiing, beaches, and occasional letterboxes, sure. Even casual tennis. But they don’t like hard exertion, sweating, or the accompanying stink, and my best cajoling hasn’t made a noticeable dent in their lack of enthusiasm. I’ve since snapped. Not “snapped” as in talking to myself in tongue, or going to work naked, or getting out of my truck to run through traffic jams flapping my arms and screaming “I’ll get there first!” I’ve decided that if they aren’t inherently inclined to hike then I’ll force the issue, do my best to make it enjoyable for them, and hope they come to appreciate it at some point.

After hiking with my 8- and 10-year-old girls in August, when they reluctantly claimed Mount Wachusett as their first summit, I was determined to get one more hike with them before winter set in. After a couple of attempts fell through for various reasons, I approached the last weekend in October as our final shot and I was determined to take advantage of it.
The unsuccessful couple of attempts in prior weeks had prepped them that I wouldn’t give up, but they were still nervous in the run-up to the weekend, with cold weather forecasted. Having read many articles on hiking with kids, I tried to prep them as best as I could. I explained that they were mostly in charge of the hike, whether pace, route, pictures, or breaks. We got suitably fashionable thermal underwear, and I explained to them about layering. I also worked with them to take ownership over managing their hydration and nutrition, with one taking a smaller Camelbak and the other using a fanny pack. That Saturday, as we set out at noon from a crowded parking lot, they were actually in good spirits and enjoying being geared up. 
All geared up and ready to go!

Photo Op!
The 4.2-mile hike was scheduled for four hours, leaving us a good buffer before it got dark, and we needed almost every last minute. The early pace was glacial, as the girls happily experimented with the right layering combination, found photo ops, and asked questions. At the first trail intersection, they paused for a snack, and I calculated that the two-tenths of a mile took forty-five minutes, putting us on pace for about a fifteen hour hike. But then we turned onto the heavily travelled – and easier climb up – the White Dot trail. And then their dislikes and anxieties largely melted away. Yes, there was the occasional over-reaction of a stubbed toe or scratch, and they did get worn out, at times hitting a physical or mental wall. And we made subtle food suggestions to keep their energy up. But, to me, and compared to much of what I’ve seen of them in the past, these were small hiccups I could easily dismiss when compared against what else I saw unfold over the afternoon.

It was a fantastic day. With two grown-ups and two kids, the four of us drifted together and apart, in varying combinations, as we worked our way up the mountain. We talked casually, offered hiking tips, listened as the girls opened up more over the day, laughed, and enjoyed occasional silence. We sometimes hopped, tip-toed, used handholds, and risked falls in puddles. The girls, with packs of their own and responsibility to manage themselves, rummaged for snacks and drank whenever they wanted instead of only when we suggested.  

The girls earned the view and lunch!

Enjoying the rock scrambles!

They took pride in being in charge of themselves, and we pointed out the pride they should also feel when looking across the mountains of southern New Hampshire and to Mount Wachusett, our frequent skiing destination. Even at the halfway point, snacking and enjoying the views, they’d matched their biggest climb to date, with more to go.

A tough last leg to a well-earned
break at the summit!

They learned that the pride is legit, because hiking, like skiing, carries risks. They saw a Boy Scout fall badly on a steep, exposed, wind-blown section, where craggy rocks jutted out at extreme angles creating a narrow chute.  Almost the whole troop was behind him but only a single troop leader accompanied the kids as I jumped over to offer help. For a moment I thought he’d concussed himself or split his scalp open. Sara and my youngest daughter thought he surely broke a nose, split his lip, or lost some teeth. He had face planted; Sarah saw the whole thing.. He had swollen and bruised spots, but our trip did not morph into a rescue mission. The girls, watching the scene, were a bit shaken. And in the resulting bottleneck of people, they were getting squeezed towards the edge of the area, standing awkwardly on the edge of smooth rock. She’d lucked out that the Boy Scout hadn’t taken her out, but now she was small and in an increasingly vulnerable spot. Sara and I asserted ourselves with mindshare that allowed us to quickly coordinate getting the girls to a safe spot out of the fray. In that moment and processing it after, they understood what we mean when we tell them we work hard to protect them and make sure they’re safe, and they have a responsibility to be careful as well, but sometimes accidents can happen. But in their musing that maybe hiking’s too dangerous, it allowed for discussion of the balance between being safe in a boring life or taking calculated risks and truly living.  
Monadnock's summit, AKA the halfway point.
Plenty of hiking still to go!
They also found perseverance and new perspective. As we fell far off the pace, and became some of the last people heading down the mountain, with well over a mile to go, we had to choose between picking up the pace or finishing in the dark. Sydney showed she could consistently maintain a surprisingly good pace, and happily bonded with me as we rock hopped up ahead before waiting for Sara and Sarah to catch up. Sarah learned fatigue is sometimes as mental as it is physical, picking up the pace when she preferred to be done for the day. One of them might have even gotten comfortable peeing in the woods. I won’t name which one for now, until I need a trump card to threaten.

And they found the joy of secret surprises. One example was the foot-long rice krispy treat I pulled out for the last leg. A 0.2-mile first leg required 45 minutes. After the treat, that same leg took 15 minutes even though we’d been hiking for over five hours. Instead of going home and making dinner, they learned the pure joy of chowing down on apr├Ęs hike pub food, getting a kick out of sitting higher off the ground at pub tables.

Finish strong, girls! Finish strong!
The pride and bonding were evident. The well-earned fatigue, on some level, felt good, too. When I had previously shown them pictures of the hike Sara and I took to the Carter Notch hut AMC runs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, they were clearly interested in the premise. But they (especially Sydney) were put off by the mandatory hike to get there. Given Mount Monadnock’s elevation is similar to that of the hut, the hiking distances are about the same, and the Carter Notch route is less steep, they began understanding our point that this new adventure may be within their grasp. And there’s an aspect to gearing up that they enjoy; given my excitement over my Sara giving me a new North Face sleeping bag for my birthday, how do I argue with that?

So, I have no doubt there will be complaints, whines, and grumblings. But I think this was an experience that will be a springboard into others next year, making it everything I hoped it would be. And as I stood behind Sydney, Sarah, and Sara, watching them snack and admire the view of the distant mountains; or as I watched Sarah leaning backwards into Sara, establishing a casual connection; or watching Sydney cut me off to nimbly tip-toe across a rock, risking wet feet if she fell into a puddle on either side in order to be the one to show the way, I felt that, as a person and a father, today was a remarkable day.

For my last hike of the year, it’s hard to argue with a day like this.

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

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